In a significant expansion of the NATO-led peace mission in Bosnia, NATO soldiers will guard two suspected mass graves where Bosnian Serbs are accused of burying thousands of bodies.
The move could place the mission in a direct confrontation with Bosnian Serbs, who have blocked investigators from visiting the sites - Bratunac near Srebrenica in the east and an abandoned mine near Prijedor in the northwest.
Some human rights groups believe up to 8,000 Muslims and Bosnian Croats were killed or dumped in the Prijedor mine, but Bosnian government sources believe the figure is lower. The sources estimate more than 100 people were buried in Bratunac after being killed in nearby Kravice.
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and other investigators worry that evidence of graves and possible war crimes could be tampered with the longer the sites are left outside international control.
The tribunal, a U.N.-appointed court based in The Hague, the Netherlands, had been losing hope that forces would help secure mass grave sites and arrest indicted war criminals.
But Maj. William Pijpers, a Dutch spokesman for the NATO-led force, said Saturday that NATO troops could surround the Bratunac and Prijedor sites early next week.
The commander of the NATO mission, U.S. Adm. Leighton Smith, said he had a request to create a “safe environment” for war crimes investigators, but declined to give details.
It would mark NATO’s first steps outside a purely military role in Bosnia. For the past month, its soldiers had overseen the creation of 2.4-mile-wide buffer zones along former front lines. The zones were to be completed Friday.
The British head of NATO ground forces in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Walker, said there was 95 percent compliance with the deadline by all sides in the 3-year war - Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Muslim-led government. Fewer than 35 pieces of heavy weaponry remained in the zones, he said.
“If you take an exam and you get 95 percent you pass with flying colors,” Walker said.
The success of the withdrawal contrasted sharply with a stalled attempt to free 900 prisoners of war. Fewer than a third of the total registered by the Red Cross were let go by Friday, the date for all to go free.
The prison release deal - reached under pressure from the United States - fizzled as the sides balked at opening cell doors without anything in return. The prisoners became bargaining chips for information about thousands of other missing people.
The Bosnian government wants to know the whereabouts of 3,500 people who, they claim, once appeared on Red Cross registries. It also wants to know the fate of nearly 21,800 missing soldiers or civilians.
“Either they are alive or we want evidence of what happened to them,” said Mirza Hajric, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry. “We fear that not many of them are alive anymore.”
Bosnian Serbs also want information on at least 3,000 people they claim are unaccounted for.
Adm. Smith said the Bosnian government still holds most of the prisoners who were to have been released Friday - 318. Bosnian Croats hold 177 and the Serbs have 151, he said, citing Red Cross figures.
“In the meantime, prisoners who should be free are spending another day in detention,” said Pierre Gauthier, head of the international Red Cross delegation in Sarajevo, which oversees the prisoner releases.
Without military clout to force the release, the Red Cross has little leverage.
“We’re like the prisoners - just hoping something will happen,” said Gauthier.
Still, there were some happy moments. Jasmin Kulovac, 18, and his uncle, Ramiz Dedic, were reunited with family members in a new city. They were taken prisoner by Bosnian Serbs when Zepa fell in July 1995 and their relatives fled to Sarajevo, taking over an abandoned apartment.